Addressing the ethical issues raised by synthetic human entities with embryo-like features image

eLife, March 21, 2017
John Aach, Jeantine Lunshof, Eswar Iyer, and George M. Church


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On November 7, 2016, the Petrie-Flom Center hosted the conference "The Ethics of Early Embryo Research & the Future of the 14-Day Rule," which convened experts in bioethics, stem cell research, embryology, and law to discuss the ethical underpinnings and future scope of the 14-day rule prohibiting in vitro experimentation on embryos beyond 14 days in light of recent advances in in vitro research. At the conference, George Church and John Aach of Harvard Medical School presented on the scientific and ethical implications of "Stem Cells, Engineered Tissues, and Synthetic Embryo-Like Entities." This new article extends that discussion:


The "14-day rule" for embryo research stipulates that experiments with intact human embryos must not allow them to develop beyond 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak. However, recent experiments showing that suitably cultured human pluripotent stem cells can self-organize and recapitulate embryonic features have highlighted difficulties with the 14-day rule and led to calls for its reassessment. Here we argue that these and related experiments raise more foundational issues that cannot be fixed by adjusting the 14-day rule, because the framework underlying the rule cannot adequately describe the ways by which synthetic human entities with embryo-like features (SHEEFs) might develop morally concerning features through altered forms of development. We propose that limits on research with SHEEFs be based as directly as possible on the generation of such features, and recommend that the research and bioethics communities lead a wide-ranging inquiry aimed at mapping out solutions to the ethical problems raised by them.

The conference, "The Ethics of Early Embryo Research & the Future of the 14-Day Rule," was sponsored by the Harvard University Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, with support from the International Society for Stem Cell Research and the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School.

bioethics biotechnology health law policy human tissue international regulation research stem cells